Therapists talk a lot about boundaries, but we're not always clear what we mean by "boundaries", why they are important to an individual's mental health, or why they are important for healthy relationships.
Boundaries - What are they?
Boundaries are physical, emotional, sexual and mental limits we set in relationships that protect us from being controlled, manipulated, abused or exploited. They make it possible for us to separate our own thoughts and feelings from those of others and to take responsibility for what we think, feel and do. They make it possible for us to accept "No" from others and to say "No" ourselves. They make it possible to be aware of where you end and another begins. They enable use to make choices about how we feel, think or behave. They help draw a line between "me" and "you".
What are "Healthy Boundaries"?
A person with healthy boundaries is able to identify how he feels about something, what he thinks about something and how he reacts or behaves in a situation. He is able to distinguish between his own emotions, opinions and behaviors and those of others. And he takes responsibility for them. He does not blame others for how he thinks, feels or behaves. He is very clear where he ends and another person begins and maintains that line. He is able to stand up for himself calmly and intelligently without intimation or manipulation.
A person with healthy boundaries does not allow other people to control how she thinks, feels or behaves, nor does she try to control them. She does not manipulate, guilt, bully or blame. She does not play the victim or the martyr. She does not tolerate abuse.
A person with healthy boundaries is able to say "No" when his boundaries are intruded upon. He is able to recognize his own needs, take responsibility for them, and ask for what he needs honestly and openly without bullying or mind games. He is able to accept "No" from others without having his self esteem shattered.
A person with healthy boundaries has a strong enough sense of self that she doesn't absorb other people's negative emotions or personalize their bad behavior.
Why are Healthy Boundaries Important in Relationships?
Successful relationships are composed of two individuals, each with a clear definition of his or her self, sharing themselves with each other. They are not a parasitic coupling of one person or both people feeding off each other to get their needs met. Some believe that "love" consists of becoming totally absorbed by or engulfed in the other person. This is not "love". True love requires that each person be a healthy individual within themselves before they can form a healthy relationship together.
If you are not happy alone, you will not be happy in a relationship.
Each person in a relationship needs a clear sense of who they are in order to clearly communicate their needs to their partner without manipulation or mind games. You can't do this if you are carrying someone else's emotions, blaming others for your behavior, or practicing someone else's beliefs.
I love the book by Shel Silverstein, "The Missing Piece Meets the Big O" for a very good visual of this concept.
One measure of a healthy self esteem is how we manage our emotional boundaries. Personal boundaries are the limits we set in relationships that allow us to protect ourselves from being manipulated by emotionally needy others. Healthy boundaries eliminate the need for blaming or scapegoating. They eliminate guilting, manipulating, victimizing and matyrdom. If everyone in the relationship is responsible for their own behaviors, thoughts and feelings it eliminates a lot of games.
Having healthy boundaries also makes the resolution of problems much more simple and clear. If someone hurts you, having healthy boundaries allows you to experience the hurt, know that you have a right to protest the hurt and stand up for yourself. You can do this without guilting or blaming, but by simply stating that you are feeling hurt and asking that the behavior not be repeated. If the person who caused the hurt decides to keep hurting you, healthy boundaries will allow you to walk away from someone who is hurting you. People with healthy boundaries do not allow themselves to be mistreated or abused.
Healthy boundaries are not selfish. They allow a person to have a clear sense of how they experience things. They also allow a person to have empathy for others, without taking responsibility for them. Healthy boundaries create a good balance between taking care of yourself and being there for others without being manipulated or exploited.
What do Unhealthy Boundaries Look Like?
People with unhealthy boundaries often find themselves "carrying" the feelings, ideas or behavior of someone else. People with unhealthy boundaries are usually unaware of this violation or may have rationalized that it is justified.
Back in my Scapegoat days I was working for organization whose management decided to change the lunch policy. I was new and not attached to the old lunch policy so I did much care about the change - until a group of employees start complaining about it around me. I suddenly found myself incensed that they would treat professionals like us in this degrading manner. I was asked to go with a group to complain to the management. However, having done my own work I knew this was a pattern I was susceptible to and asked for time to decide. Stepping out of the emotionally charged environment for an hour allowed me to reflect on the situation and realize that my original feelings about the situation were that I didn't care. It was only after listening to my colleagues complaints that I felt maligned. I realized that I was carrying other people's emotions and declined to participate in the complaint. In doing so, I protected my emotional boundaries and an old Scapegoat pattern.
Unhealthy boundaries are often seen in relationships which are abusive. One partner will walk on eggshells around the other to avoid making them mad or having them get violent. The abused partner subjugates their emotions, opinions and behaviors to the wishes of the other. If you are not allowed to have your own emotions, opinions or behaviors that is emotional abuse. So many times I see this and the partner being abused will justify it by saying, "But he/she never hits me, so it can't be abuse." Physical violence is absolutely atrocious, but in some ways I wonder if mental and emotional violence is not more insidious, because it goes unseen. A broken bone or a bruise is obvious to everyone. But when someone gets control for your mind, they have control not of your arm or your face but your entire being. They have control of who you are and they make you question the validity of your own judgement and instincts. And they leave no mark. They leave no scars which you can point to and say, "See what has happened to me." This can make you question your own sense of reality. And in some ways this is the ultimate boundary violation.
Types of Boundaries
People with "weak" or "diffuse" boundaries have boundaries which are non-existent or very porous. Other people's ideas, emotions or behavior heavily affect such people. People with weak boundaries are often unaware they are being affected in this way. Being unaware of their own boundaries, they are also very unaware of others'. People with weak boundaries may intrude constantly upon the boundaries of others; invading their space, violating their privacy, spewing their emotions or opinions or trying to manipulate those of others. They rarely stand up for themselves, do not feel able to protest any maltreatment by others and often blame themselves for their own abuse. People with weak boundaries may experience serious mood swings as they vacillate back and forth, absorbing the emotions and beliefs of everyone around them. You often see this in family systems.
Mary's mother calls to complain to her about the behavior of her sister, Nancy, at a recent family event. Mary buys into her mother's outrage and calls her brother Sam to complain to him. Mary and Sam may find themselves feeling very angry at Nancy even though her behavior at the event did not initially bother them - until their mother called. They may even go to Nancy to tell her how awful her behavior was and how outraged they are. Notice how the mother is not telling Nancy directly that she has a problem with Nancy's behavior. The mother is pushing her emotions onto her children - and they are carrying them for her. They confront Nancy for the mother instead of the mother confronting Nancy herself. It is important to note that mother can only push her emotions onto Mary and Sam if they allow it. If they maintain a healthy boundary, they say "No", this is not my emotion and stop the interaction. A healthy intervention here from Mary and Sam would redirect mother to talk to Nancy directly instead of taking it up with them.
Some indications of a person with weak boundaries are:
- Unable to say "No" to anything or anyone
- Constantly vacillating in response to whatever is going on around them
- Easily distracted, so flexible they are in a constant state of flux
- Cannot tolerate being told "No" without their self esteem suffering greatly
- Cannot tolerate constructive criticism or feedback without personalizing it
- Treat everything as equally important, unable to prioritize or discriminate for themselves what is important and what is not
- Highly reactive to external factors; other people's emotions, thoughts and behavior
People with very rigid or closed boundaries don't let anything in and rarely notice the effect of their behavior, opinions or feelings on others. They may appear very intrusive and perhaps manipulative. They often blame the victim for the resulting outcome. People with rigid boundaries can be very withdrawn and isolated in relationships. Some indications of a person with rigid boundaries are:
- Impervious or nonresponsive to feedback
- Being unopen to change, hanging on to how things "have always been done"
- Seek stability at the price of flexibility
- Listen without responding or changing
- Impervious to anything outside of themselves
Some indications of a person with healthy boundaries are:
- Ability to adapt and change when it is needed and appropriate
- Do not vacilate wildly according to what is happening around them
- Able to say "No" when it is appropriate
- Able to accept constructive criticism or feedback without personalizing it
- Able to accept "No" from others without taking it personally
- Able to stand up for themselves
- Know how they feel, what they think and how they behave
- Take responsibility for meeting their own needs
- Take responsibility for their emotions, their ideas and their behavior
Ways in Which Unhealthy Boundaries Manifest Themselves in Relationships
One of the most common boundary violations involves your time. People can encroach upon your time in a myriad of ways which may be elusive and difficult to nail down at first. A colleague who passes their work off onto you or wastes your time by showing up late for meetings, or not showing up at all, may be violating your boundaries. A family member or friend who makes constant demands upon your time and is unwilling to reciprocate can be violating your boundaries.
You have scheduled some free time in your busy schedule to participate in a yoga class. You've been feeling very stressed and rushed in the past few weeks and have been looking forward to this down time all week. Your brother calls - again - and needs a ride to work. He frequently requests rides from you, but is never available or has the time to give you a ride when you need one. Taking him to work will prevent you from attending the yoga class. Public transportation is available which your brother could utilize to get him to work, but he would prefer that you take him. You feel guilty and give in. You resent the imposition on your time and are angry that you "have" to miss your yoga class.
First of all, realize that you do not "have to" take him to work. You choose to. If you tell yourself that you "have to", then you give the power to him instead of keeping it yourself. However, with power comes responsibility. If you have the power to say "No", then it is your responsibility to do so or to not resent the imposition.
Physical Boundaries - Body Space
Personal body space is an important boundary to be aware of and the amount of body space each person needs is determined not only by their own personal history, but by culture. For instance, Americans typically require a lot more body space than people from the Middle East. A history of trauma will make people very sensitive to body space or being touched. Touching is part of body space and should be approached only with permission.
You are standing in line at the grocery store and the person behind you in line keeps bumping into you with their cart. Once you move on through the line and are entering your debit card information, they stand close enough to you to read the screen and your pass code.
Some people will not be bothered by this. Some people will come out of their skin. If this feels like a boundary violation to you - it is. Turn around and ask the person to please give you some room. They may not understand why you need it, but they will usually back up a bit. It does not matter whether people understand why you need more space. You still have a right to it regardless of whether they understand.
Sam grew up in a very violent family with a lot of alcohol abuse that resulted in abuse of his mother, himself and his siblings. As an adult he is working at his desk, buried deep in a computer program on which he is working. Jose comes up behind him and suddenly slaps him on the back and laughs loudly expecting to share a joke with him which they have both enjoyed in the past. Sam jumps violently and starts yelling at Jose not to "sneak up" behind him like that. Jose is hurt and confused. He and Sam have joked for years and become close office buddies. He doesn't understand why he's being attacked.
People who have experienced trauma, especially sexual abuse, may be particularly sensitive to intrusive touch, or touch without permission. People who have been traumatized by violence may be particularly sensitive to others coming up behind them unexpectedly or touching them on the back or shoulder without permission. It's best to ask before putting your hands on someone else, even casually. Sudden loud noises can also startle people who have been traumatized.
Even after you have known someone for years, like Jose and Sam, you may suddenly find that the familiar slap on the back which Sam has always tolerated, provokes an explosive reaction when it is unexpected. A husband may find that his sexual advances are suddenly rebuffed when he touches his wife in a new or different way that reminds her of past sexual abuse. The most important thing to do is not take it personally. They are reacting to something from the past and not you. Hopefully, the person who experiences the violation is aware of the source and can communicate this to the other person. If Sam has had counseling for his childhood abuse he is more likely to be aware of the cause of his reaction and will be able to take responsibility for his response to Jose's innocent joking. Hopefully, Sam will be able to explain that it is not Jose himself he is reacting to and will be able to request that Jose announce when he is coming up behind him in the future so as not to provoke that reaction again. Notice that Sam does not blame Jose for his reaction and works to explain it as a problem which he, Sam, has. He then works with Jose to negotiate a way to continue the joking without provoking the negative reaction.
Emotional boundaries are violated when you absord other people's emotions or are not allowed to experience your own emotions. You have a right to feel your feelings, regardless of what they are. You are responsible for how you express them, but you have every right to have them. You should be able to maintain an emotional boundary without feeling like you have hurt or disappointed another person. You should be able to ask for what you want or need.
You get up in the morning, feeling happy and content and looking forward to the day you have planned. Your father calls and is upset with your brother for some perceived slight. He tells you about it and you begin to get upset with your brother , even though the slight was directed at your father and not at you. You call your brother and tell him what you think of him. An argument ensues. You hang up distraught and agitated. You stay upset for the rest of the day and are unable to enjoy the plans you made.
If you tend to absorb other people's emotions it's good to get quiet and determine how you felt before Dad called. Also ask yourself how you felt about the situation before Dad told you how he felt. This may be one of the more difficult boundaries to establish and maintain. Dad may be hurt, feel rejected, or place guilt if you do not buy into his emotions and take on his cause against your brother. But it's important that you maintain your right to only feel your own feelings and not take on his.
You can also have your emotional boundaries violated by name calling, insults, hate-filled remarks, discrimination, intolerance and prejudice. Being called stupid, ugly, fat or lazy is a violation of your emotional boundaries. Being insulted because of your race, sex, religious beliefs or sexual orientation is a violation of your emotional boundaries. Being treated as an inferior is an emotional boundary violation.
People can also violate your emotional boundaries by not allowing you to feel any emotions or not allowing you to express certain emotions. If you are not allowed to be angry, hurt, fearful or sad that is abuse. If you are only allowed to feel what someone else feels or what someone else thinks you should feel that is a boundary violation. Everyone human has emotions. They are a natural reaction to life and not allowing them denies us the full experience of life itself.
Many times people with anger problems do not have good emotional boundaries. They allow other people to control how they feel and how they respond to the point that they are raging out of control. They often personalize things which are not personal. They also fail to maintain a good boundary between their feelings and the rights of others. This failure to take responsibility for how they express the emotion of anger can result in them being violent, aggressive or abusive. Taking responsibility for how they perceive things, how they let things affect them and what they can do to derail the anger before it becomes full blown rage will go a long way toward reestablishing a healthy emotional boundary between themselves and others.
You have a right to hold your own opinions and express your own ideas. Being told what to think, when to think or how to think violates your cognitive boundaries. It is more commonly referred to as brainwashing. One of the most common abuses of this is in domestic violence when the abuser forces his or her ways of thinking about things on their partner or the partner subjugates their own opinions to keep the abuser from "blowing up". This is a boundary violation. You have a right to disagree. If it is not safe to express and hold your own opinions without fear for your safety, you are being abused.
Another way I see this is manifested is with religious beliefs. One partner may feel strongly that the other partner should share their religious beliefs. You have a right to your own religious beliefs, even if they contradict someone else's. And other people have a right to theirs.
I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.
-- The Friends of Voltaire, 1906
You have a right to privacy. You have a right to receive postal mail, email and phone calls in private. Listening in on phone calls, reading someone else's mail, passing along personal information which was entrusted to you in confidence can all be considered boundary violations. People from different families can have different boundaries regarding getting dressed, using the bathroom or taking a shower. This can be a common point of contention with married couples who grew up in families with different privacy boundaries.
Joe grew up in a large family where everyone shared the bathroom and came in and out with ease. Sandra grew up in a small family where privacy was highly regarded and people expected to be left alone while in the bathroom. Now Joe and Sandra are married and Sandra cannot understand why Joe walks in on her in the bathroom. Joe cannot understand why she makes such a big deal of it.
This example kind of overlaps with emotional boundaries. It does not matter why Sandra feels the way she does. She simple does. And she has a right to. Nor is Joe wrong in needing less privacy than Sandra. No one is right or wrong. They are simply different and have the right to have that difference respected. If they both have healthy boundaries Sandra can stand up for the privacy she needs and she and Joe can negotiate a compromise that works for both of them.
Tina insists on checking Ron's phone and monitoring all incoming and outgoing phone calls to be sure he is not calling other women.
This is a violation of the privacy boundary. If you don't trust someone, why are you in a relationship with them? There is a more serious trust issue here that Tina and Ron are not addressing.
Your personal property is an extensive of you. This particular boundary can be extremely variable from person to person, family to family and culture to culture. Some cultures put a very low value on personal property ownership. Other cultures value it very highly and take it very seriously. Families too can have very weak boundaries regarding property ownership with family members easily borrowing from each other without a thought. Other families may have very rigid boundaries regarding personal property with strong rules about not touching or bothering something which belongs to another family member without permission. A simple example is "mom's purse". For some families, getting into mom's purse to get something is permissible and not given a second thought. Other families may regard this as a major intrusion which is not permitted. This can become a major problem when a person from a family with thin property boundaries marries someone from a family with thick property boundaries.
Joe and Maria get married. Joe comes from a family that is very close knit and shares their belongings. Maria comes from a family which has a very strong sense of "mine" and "yours" and rarely crosses those boundaries. Maria comes home from visiting with a neighbor to find that Joe's brother has borrowed her car to run an errand. She is incensed that she is left without a car and that Joe lent it to his brother without even asking her permission. Joe is mystified as to why Maria is upset. She wasn't planning to go anywhere and if she does his car is still there.
It is important for Joe and Maria to realize that neither of them is "right" or "wrong". They inherited two different sets of family rules and this is a common and natural problem of getting married. Likewise, neither set of family rules is "right" or "wrong". They are just different. Realizing that you come from two different, but equally "right", ways of doing things validates both of their feelings and avoids the blame game. Communication about how to negotiate this difference and the willingness to compromise will be crucial.
What many people in our modern society do not seem to realize is that sounds can be a boundary violation. If I am riding on the bus, train, subway or plane your animated conversation on your cell phone can be very intrusive. Working out at the gym, sitting in the sauna, eating in a restaurant, or having coffee with a friend can be intruded upon by someone talking on their cell phone. Music which is played so loudly that it interferes with your neighbor's peace can be a boundary violation. Children yelling and screaming in a place which is meant to be quiet (i.e. a bookstore or a library) can be a violation of other people's boundaries. Yelling in confined places can be very threatening to people who come from an abusive background or who have witnessed violence.
If you are unsure about appropriate cell phone usage please see my article, "Cell Phone Etiquette".
Children who grow up being molested learn to have sex they do not ask for or want. They often replicate this pattern as adults, though usually unknowingly. As adult sexual partners they may have sex when they do not want to or do not feel like it. They may engage in sex for money or drugs or they may be attracted to partners who force sex. Any time you are having sex you do not want, that is a boundary violation.
As always, remember that what is healthy for someone else may not be healthy for you. Everyone has to determine what feels "right" for themselves. Some people have very thin, permeable boundaries and are comfortable with this. Others require very rigid boundaries to feel safe and comfortable. Define for yourself where your boundaries and what feels comfortable for you and stick up for your right to feel that way.
Many people in unhealthy relationships do not realize what they can expect from a truly loving partner. For women who were sexually abused as children I strongly recommend the book, "The Courage to Heal " by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis. See Part Four for real life examples of what loving husbands are willing to do for women they love who have been abused. For men who have been sexually abused I recommend "Victims No Longer" by Mike Lew.
Remember too that having good boundaries does not mean blaming others for their unhealthy boundaries. You cannot control the behavior of others and having healthy boundaries is not an excuse for you to become the Boundary Police. It is a way for you to take responsibility for clearly and consistently maintaining your own boundaries. Unless we set clear limits and consistently maintain them we cannot expect others to know where our boundaries are or to respect them.